cross cultural miscommunication

When my time isn’t your time

Posted on April 13, 2009. Filed under: business, cross cultural conflict, cross cultural miscommunication, hispanic culture, time | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Time changes everything. Or how you view time changes everything.  Differences in cultural concepts of time are ALWAYS brought up by a frustrated manager or employee during cross cultural training sessions. I am amazed at how little attention is paid to understanding the concept of time in the workplace, given its profound impact on productivity, employee and customer relations, and worker satisfaction.

Ideas about time range widely:

  • Time is a scare resource.  Manage it carefully!
  • Time is abundant.  Relax!
  • Time is best spent concentrating on one activity, conversation, project, etc., at a time
  • Time is best spent concentrate simultaneously on multiple activities, conversations, projects, etc., at a time.
  • Use time to learn from the past.  The present is essentially a continuation or a repetition of past occurrences.
  • Use time to focus on “here and now” and short-term benefits.
  • Use time to plan for long-term benefits.  Promote a far-reaching vision.

These differences can wreak havoc on the workplace.

I worked with one American company that was having problems with time management of their plant in Mexico, which supplied the raw materials for their factory in the US. “They always miss deadlines, and never at least give us the heads up that they may be late!” “They work so slowly!” “It’s impossible to coordinate with them, because they just don’t stick to our schedule!”

When I asked how they were presently dealing with the situation, the manager said they had sent a team down to Mexico to train the employees on what was expected and managing their time better.

The company did not leave anyone American onsite to oversee production schedules. The problem returned as soon as we left, was their response. Well of course everything went back to Mexican style! Why wouldn’t it? Could you imagine a person from a different culture coming into your workplace and telling you to behave in a manner completely different from your culture? How long would you keep that up, especially if no one from the target culture was on site? Wouldn’t you and your coworkers slip back into your natural way of acting and communicating?

Helping employees understand cultural differences requires constant communication. There is no instant solution. Working successfully across cultures takes time.

Read here about ways to get employees on the same page about time expectations.

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AIG & Universalism –cultural views on contractual obligations

Posted on March 18, 2009. Filed under: American culture, business, cross cultural, cross cultural conflict, cross cultural miscommunication, universalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Although I personally think AIG is beyond reprehensible, greedy, corrupt and incompetent, I am intrigued by the cultural influences of the situation we now find ourselves in.  I considered, specifically, the differences in cultural views on contractual obligations between Universalist and Particularist cultures, and use the US and China as examples.

The idea that  AIG has a contractual obligation to pay out bonuses to the very executives who brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy  is firmly grounded in American culture. America is a Universalist culture–they have rules and laws and contracts that are applicable to everyone equally (supposedly). They believe contracts are legal and binding, regardless of obvious changes in situation.  AIG executives moan that these bonuses were promised to them by contract and contracts, in a Universalist culture, are untouchable. A deal is a deal. Even a raw one.

Chinese culture, on the other hand, is Particularist. Particularists look at each situation, and understand that things may change unexpectedly. For the Particularist, contracts may be amended or adjusted if the situation or context changes. Particularists also spend more time building relationships,  and value personal obligation and “face” more than Universalists.  For Particularists,  a trustworthy person is known to honor the changing circumstances.  The idea is to build a long term relationship and have a win-win situation over time for both parties.

For the Universalist, it is the complete opposite. A trustworthy person keeps his word, abides by the contract, and pays up. Even when it’s ethically, morally, and  poltically wrong.

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Family, friends and the open invitation

Posted on March 1, 2009. Filed under: American culture, celebrations, cross cultural, cross cultural miscommunication, family, hispanic culture, time | Tags: , , , , , |

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that my husband is Dominican. I’m very familiar with Hispanic culture, although understanding it doesn’t always make it easier to put up with things that really go against my American ways.

The whole time thing makes me nuts. For Americans, time controls the event. Events have a starting time and and ending time, and often these are scheduled in advance.  For Hispanics, the event controls time.  Yes, I know the dinner invitation said 7:30, but my wife always takes forever getting ready, and then a good friend called whom I haven’t spoken to in a while, then I felt like taking a nap, and that’s why I’m here at 10:15. Oh, and by the way, I brought my cousin, his son and a friend they had visiting from back home.

At first, I used to get angry. What’s so hard about being here on time? Why can’t you at least give me the heads up that you want to bring extra people? To be fair though, I’m sure my Dominican friends and family thought I was insane when I said my daughter’s birthday party was from 1:30-3:00 (she was 5).

So now I just enjoy the role of Gringa Fria when it suits me. I’m THE AMERICAN WIFE. If you don’t confirm with at least 24 hours notice, I’m counting you out. If I’m expecting 6, I cook for 6. Even if 11 show up. You can share.

Maybe that’s why our house isn’t the most popular place for Dominican get togethers….

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Why I ate a broom, and other cross cultural missteps

Posted on January 31, 2009. Filed under: cross cultural miscommunication, cuisine | Tags: , , , , |

Normally, people don’t publicize the dumb things they have done. But, if you know anything about Jewish humor,  you know that self-deprecation is perfectly OK if it is followed by a great punch line.

As I’ve mentioned many times, people try to understand new cultures by processing their experiences based on their own cultural frameworks–how is this like or not like my own culture. Usually, I’m pretty aware when this is happening, but sometimes I just get caught off guard, and forget that I’m using my own culture as a reference.

I was in Dominican Republic with my husband, who is Dominican, and we had stopped at a local supermarket to pick up some groceries. As I wandered through the produce section, admiring all the exotic fruits and vegetables, I saw a bundle of what looked like thin strips of bark. This must be some kind of spice, I thought, like cinnamon bark or sassafras. Right? I mean, it was in the produce aisle. I picked up the bundle and gave it a sniff. Funny, I thought. it doesn’t have any aroma.

Being a total foodie, I simply had to find out what this unknown and exotic Dominican spice was–so I broke off a small piece and popped it in my mouth. I looked up, only to find a group of teenage girls watching me and giggling uncontrollably. I was used to the “check out the gringa” stare, so I didn’t think anything about it. My husband, at this point,  came down the aisle looking at me  (with that look he gets!) and shaking his head. “Why,” he asked, “are you eating a broom?”

Why was I eating a broom?

  • Because it was in the produce aisle, and not in the cleaning supply aisle (like in America)
  • Because brooms bristles are made of polyester or plastic, not bark (like in America)
  • Because brooms have handles (like in America)
  • Because it didn’t look like a broom! (like in America)

All of my reasons were based on my cultural knowledge of both brooms and spices. It was at that point my husband explained to me that in his country the bottom part of a broom is replaceable (unlike in America) and you can just put it on the broom handle you have at home.

No wonder it didn’t taste very good.

Have you ever made a silly mistake because you were using your own cultural references in another country? What happened?

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